MY 60-YEAR QUEST TO BECOME A NOVELIST
AS YOU READ THIS, YOU WILL HAVE A HARD TIME FIGURING OUT IF I AM BRAGGING OR COMPLAINING. I will tell you at the end. Please don’t skip ahead.
When I was nine years old, I decided to become a novelist. There were no such people in my working class neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, but that didn’t stop me dreaming.
We had a library, a storefront womanned (if there is no such verb there should be) by lovely librarians who liked nothing better than to help a child fall in love with books. I dove in to the collection in the children’s room and began one of the central romances of my life. I was in love with stories! My thirst for them has never waned; no matter how many I have under my belt, I still want more. At age nine, I wanted to write my own. At age 72, I still do.
Kids who grew up where and when I did never aspired to become starving artists. We went to college and got the best job we could. We all moved away. My second love affair had started at age 10: an infatuation with New York City that began with a visit to Easter Show at Radio City Music Hall. I became a New Yorker.
There, my dream of being a novelist persisted through corporate jobs and starting my own consulting practice and through the publication of four nonfiction books.
When my daughter graduated from college, I told myself my time to write novels had come. I began to work at developing my fiction writing chops. It had been years since Sister Mary Catherine’s creative writing class. Membership in Mystery Writers of America put me in touch with other aspiring writers, as well as with published authors, symposia, and a writers’ group. Learning the craft took several years and many practice runs at novels that are now hidden in a trunk.
Travel to exotic places had inspired me to work on a historical mystery set in South America. Eventually, I had a book I thought worthy of publication, but the agent who had represented my nonfiction declared it too obscure a subject. I started looking for a new agent.
Then followed eight years of agents’ rejections, many of which came in the form of their merely ignoring my pleas for representation. In all that time, only one agent actually read the manuscript. He declared that he would represent City of Silver. With a big IF. All I had to do was rewrite the book and make the priest in the story the main character, presenting him as an amateur sleuth. But City of Silver is a locked-room mystery that takes place in a cloistered convent. The main character is the abbess, who handles the death of a novice in a way that puts her in danger of the Inquisition. That prospective agent wanted me to turn my story of women in jeopardy into one where a man swooped in and saved the day. Not likely for a woman with my feminist convictions. I bid that guy good-bye.
The search continued to no avail. Then, one morning in year eight, a writing buddy from Mystery Writers of America called to say he had met an agent who would be perfect for me.
I really wanted back into the publishing game. I was past 65 and getting impatient. But what I wanted—first and foremost—was to see my novel in print.
Normally, a query letter is what writers send to prospective agents. With it, the writer tries, in one page, to convince the agent that she has a great idea and the ability to write it exceedingly well. All the various versions of the query letter for City of Silver had failed to achieve that end.
That morning, a different strategy came to me. If I wrote a fifth nonfiction book I might get an agent who would agree to read City of Silver and try to sell it as well. I wrote a query letter for a book called Monster Boss. My previous and most successful nonfiction book—Never Work for A Jerk—had been published in three American editions, been translated into several other languages, stayed in print for nearly 18 years, and landed me on the Oprah Winfrey Show. This new book would be a sequel to that success.
I mailed the letter to the agent, Nancy Love, that afternoon. The next day she telephoned and invited me to lunch. By the end of lunch, she told me she could sell Monster Boss. I worked up a proposal, the project sold, and I spent the next year and a half writing the book. Once I submitted the final manuscript, Nancy sent me a check for my share of the advance on royalties. Attached to that check was a post-it that said, “What next?”
I emailed her about my novel. She telephoned back. “I didn’t know you wrote fiction,” she said in a tone you would use if you wanted me to give up chocolate.
“I have this novel….”
Sigh. “Okay,” she said. “Send me 40 pages.” Deeper sigh. I emailed the pages immediately.
The next day she asked if the book was written. When I said yes, she asked to have the full printed manuscript by that afternoon. That was a Friday. On Monday she said she could sell the book. It sold in four days. Once published, City of Silver got love letters from the critics.
That was August 2009. I was 68 years old.
On my 70th birthday, my agent announced a two-book contract for novels two and three. Those are both out, the most recent one, Blood Tango, this summer. The fourth book, the first of a 10-book series, is written and in production to launch in 2014, and I am working on number five. I joke that I am going to be the Grandma Moses of murder mysteries.
So have I been bragging or complaining? Bragging, of course. But not about myself. About human persistence—the strongest force on the planet. If you doubt this, consider the recent saga of 64-year-old Diana Nyad. While I was finishing this piece Nyad was nearing the Florida Keys in her fifth attempt to complete the 110-mile swim from Cuba. Over the years, she had failed four previous times. This time, she made it—without a shark cage. Walking ashore, she told the mob of onlookers, “We should never give up…You’re never too old to pursue your dreams.”
Thank you, Diana, for reminding us. Never giving up is the answer.
Patricia King is a writer whose novels appear under the pen name Annamaria Alfieri. She is president of the New York City chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website, www.annamariaalfieri.com.